My father died by suicide when I was seven and for my Masters Dissertation I explored his death in relation to the UK’s mainstream suicide discourse(s) which foregrounded male suicide as a crisis of masculinity.
I had never thought of my father as a migrant before, because although he looked Chinese he was born and raised in Liverpool. However as part of a course led by Alyosxa Tudor I was introduced to the differentiation of migratism from racism which situates Europe in its Postcolonial relationship with migration (Tudor 2017). This unsettled my father’s narrative. His suicide had ‘made sense’ before, slotting perfectly into the NHS’s suicide journey: his death certificate inscribed ‘he took his own life whilst the balance of his mind was disturbed’; the NHS (2019) say clinical depression – the leading mental illness ending in suicide – is often triggered by stressful or upsetting life events, including “bereavement, divorce, redundancy and job or money worries” and might lead to suicide when a ‘downward spiral’ of events accumulates.
Crafted through my memories and re-tellings by my mother, the trajectory of my father’s death was very linear: not long after having me, my mother had relocated from her secure job as a GP and her friends and family to live with my father in the North West of England. He was soon made redundant which hit him worse because of his feeling that his best friend and boss could have warned him before the big move. He started a small holding, buying land, tractors, animals, and building a barn. He told my mum he’d wanted to be a vet but his family didn’t support him to go to University. But tractors were stolen from our home and my mother’s savings diminished, debt built up. He drew into himself and shortly before he died, he told my mother and us they were getting a divorce. Taking mainstream medical-scientific discourses on suicide at face value, suicide appears the next unfortunate but inevitable step in his ‘downward spiral of events’.
But there was more to his story. My dad had been married before and when my mum rang his ex-wife to inform her of his death, she said she would also pass the news on to his family. My father had told my mum his family were dead, but weeks later we arrived at their house less than fifty miles away, where they lived with my father’s sister and her children. Why did he craft a narrative without his family? It became no clearer from our few meetings with them. Photos depict my father as an Asian man dressed in golf attire, farmer’s getup, or suits at parties. Mum says he had a ‘posh’ accent, despite living around Liverpool and Manchester for most of his fifty years. He was born to a white British mother and non-white Chinese father, he had three siblings, one who died by suicide before he did. The other dominant strand of Suicidology would tell me this shows he was genetically disposed to suicide (Jamison 1999).
Causal-explanatory factors strip my father’s life and death of nuance and complexity and stifle other possible ways of understanding suicidality. Looking beyond the plethora of crisis-making of male suicide (Campaign Against Living Miserably, 2019; Thornton 2012; Poole 2013, 2016) I argued that suicide reporting which focuses on statistics about high male suicide rates and the subsequent prevention campaigns are flawed: the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports suicide based on age and sex (thus middle aged men are constructed as in suicide crisis) but ethnicity, migrant status, and other identity categories which might be at more risk of the NHS’s ‘causes’ of suicide (such as poverty and unemployment) are not reported because they are missing from death certificates.
In my dissertation I suggested this failure to produce suicide reporting, research and prevention on these groups in contrast with the ‘crisis’ afforded to middle aged (white) men can be viewed either as ignorance or wilful killing of marginalised groups (see Berlant 2007’s slow death). When read alongside the UK’s immigration discourse, both possibilities hold. In 2012, then-Home Secretary Theresa May implemented the ‘hostile environment’ (Global Justice Now, 2018; The3million.org.uk, 2019) to push illegal immigrants – migrants without settled status – to self-remove by limiting their access to life-making resources like housing, employment and healthcare. Likewise, Boris Johnson’s anti-immigrant Brexit narrative to ‘make Britain great again’ relies on wilful colonial amnesia (Tudor 2017) to migratise non-white bodies as unbelonging. ‘Good’ migrants – NHS workers, nannies, indispensable employees – are welcomed into British citizenship and separated from ‘bad’ migrants – unemployed, ‘benefits scroungers’, ‘draining’ the NHS – who are abjected.
Writing my dissertation during the BBC’s Mental Health Awareness Week in May 2019, I watched three celebrities narrate their experiences of mental illness. Two of the contributors – TV chef Nadiya Hussain and actor David Harewood – are second-generation non-white British migrants (like my father), whose struggles with mental health can be traced back to incidents of racism and migratism throughout their education. While the influences of racist and migratist bullying are not addressed in the programme, there is a large discourse exploring ethnic minorities and migrants as more vulnerable to suicide than native populations around the world (see Forte et al., 2018’s literature review of 678 reports and 43 articles between 1980-2017).
A selection of these studies suggest that the children of migrants – second-generation migrants – may be even more at risk than their parents’ generation. Although research into this group is limited, among second-generation migrants, studies undertaken in the Western receiving countries of Sweden (Hjern and Allebeck, 2002; Di Thiene et al., 2014), Germany (Aichberger et al., 2015) and the USA (Peña et al., 2008) indicate that suicide rates are even higher than in the first-generation. That suicide rates appear even higher among second-generation migrants than their parent generation (Bungra and Jones 2001) unsettles potential critiques which dismiss higher suicide rates among migrants as due to physical migration; culture shock or difference. Instead, in my dissertation I utilised Brah’s (1996) concept of culture ‘clash’ to open up understandings of migrant suicide to include racism and ‘migratism’ as productive of suicide.
I will be building on this over the next three years for my PhD in Migrant Suicide as part of the Suicide Cultures project.
Aichberger, M.C.et al. (2015) Suicide attempt rates and intervention effects in women of Turkish origin in Berlin. Eur. Psychiatry 30, 480–485.
Baril, A., (2020). Suicidism: A new theoretical framework to conceptualize suicide from an anti-oppressive perspective. Disability Studies Quarterly 40(3). [Accessed 11 March 2021].
Berlant, L. (2007). Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency). Critical Inquiry, 33(4), pp. 754-780.
Bungra, D. and Jones, P. (2001). Migration and Mental Illness. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 7, pp. 216-223.
Brah, A. (1996). Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London and New York: Routledge.
Chandler, A. (2019). Boys don’t cry? Critical phenomenology, self-harm and suicide. The Sociological Review, pp. 1-17.
Di Thiene, D. et al. (2015) Suicide among First-generation and Second-generation Immigrants in Sweden: Association with Labour Market Marginalisation and Morbidity. J. Epidemiol. Community Health, 69, 467–473
Forte, A., et al. (2018). Suicide Risk among Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities: A Literature Overview. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(7), p. 1438. doi:10.3390/ijerph15071438.
Hjern, A., & Allebeck, P. (2002). Suicide in first- and second -generation immigrants in Sweden: A comparative study. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology: The International Journal for Research in Social and Genetic Epidemiology and Mental Health Services, 37(9), 423–429.
Jamison, K. (1999). Night falls fast : Understanding suicide. New York: Knopf.
Ons.gov.uk. 2019. Data on suicide broken down by ethnicity – Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: <https://www.ons.gov.uk/aboutus/transparencyandgovernance/freedomofinformationfoi/dataonsuicidebrokendownbyethnicity> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
Said, Edward W. (1978): Orientalism. London: Penguin.
Schreier, H., et al., (2015). Lifetime exposure to traumatic and other stressful life events and hair cortisol in a multi-racial/ethnic sample of pregnant women. Stress, 19(1), pp.45-52.
Tudor, A. (2017). Queering Migration Discourse: Differentiating Racism and Migratism in Postcolonial Europe. Lambda Nordica, 22(2-3).